A bada-bing expo!

Nov 20, 2007 6:05 AM

Leave it to the American Gaming Association to invite mob boss Tony Soprano to the casino industry’s annual global gathering.

At noon last Tuesday, "Sopranos" stars James Gandolfini and Steven R. Schirripa (Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri) cut the ribbon at the Las Vegas Convention Center, opening the doors to the 2007 Global Gaming Expo (G2E), which drew a record 30,000 gambling industry professionals from 107 countries.

The actors were on hand to launch Aristocrat Technologies "Sopranos"-themed slot machine, which was unveiled along with hundreds of other new games and industry products from more than 750 vendors.

The commercial casino industry has long shied away from mentioning even a fictional connection with organized crime, but "maybe we’ve moved beyond that," said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the association’s chief executive.

Inside the convention hall, a real-life gambling figure signed aautographs. Pete Rose — who was banned for life from major-league baseball for betting on games — was promoting Kodiak Gaming’s "Charlie Hustle" slot machine.

Other new slots carrying a movie or TV theme included Indiana Jones and Star Wars, which features the music and images you come to expect from a galaxy far, far away, while Indiana Jones entertains with its adventurous gameplay.

Besides the newest slot machines, there were on display electronic blackjack tables, casino chips embedded with high-tech tracking systems, slot machines that change with the touch of a button, touch-screen concierge systems and thousands of new casino games.

There were also innovative casino security products and back-of-the-house management software designed to facilitate the smooth operations of the largest casinos.

(For a closer look at some of the new products, flip over to our Slot Today page 1 story.)

Beyond the exhibit floor, the four-day conference featured nearly 500 speakers and 140 seminars and lecture sessions, ranging from the future of Internet and tribal gambling to the latest in casino security and accounting tools.

Here are some of the salient developments that arose from the various panels and keynote addresses:

What credit crunch?

Finance professionals and top gaming executives shrugged off fears that casinos would be hit by a credit crunch sparked by the subprime mortgage crisis this summer.

They cited some competitive advantages that casinos enjoy, and that the falling dollar could actually create financial opportunities for gaming companies that would offset the credit crunch impact.

For instance, Dan D’Arrigo, MGM Mirage’s chief financial officer, said his company had effectively become a real estate company with large holdings on the Las Vegas Strip, and MGM would use those assets to fund development.

"With the dollar down, America is on sale," D’Arrigo said. "We get offers every day from overseas seeking to be joint venture partners."

D’Arrigo added the falling dollar would also generate more business for destinations like Las Vegas by encouraging Americans to vacation at home and bringing in more tourists.

Beyond the Strip, lenders were looking to a business’s fundamentals, said Stephen Turpin of Atlanta-based ORIX Finance, which funds projects in small and emerging markets.

"I want to know how well you operate, what the rate of return is and what your leverage point is," Turpin said.

However, the home foreclosure crisis may be having an impact on the spending among Las Vegas locals.

A study from real estate firm CB Richard Ellis shows locals revenue on a "same-store basis" is down between 5 percent and 10 percent since summer.

"We’re going to keep tracking those date," said Carlton Greer, head of Ellis’ global gaming group.

World Series on the ”˜net

Harrah’s Entertainment is considering taking its World Series of Poker online in the United Kingdom and Europe.

"If you look at the legal landscape in continental Europe and the United Kingdom, there are countries where it’s demonstratably legal and there’s absolutely no encumbrances," said Gary Loveman, Harriah’s chief executive. "Those are the areas that are very attractive to us."

Loveman offered no details of how the plan would work and that the company is still trying to decide if offering events, tournaments or satellites online would be legal and marketable.

Of course, the plan wouldn’t work in the United States because of the existing ban on banks and payment processors handling bets for players.

Attendance for this year’s WSOP main event dropped from the previous year, mostly because online poker sites couldn’t offer packages to U.S. players.

Future Watch results

The G2E Future Watch Series, an annual research survey conducted in conjunction with G2E, revealed that most casino executives and analysts foresee a bright future for server-based gaming and electronic table games, although a significant number of insiders are concerned that technology might supplant personal service for customers.

Here is a cursory breakdown of some of the survey results:

”¡ 95 percent of industry experts believe the future is very bright (59 percent) or somewhat bright (36 percent) for server-based or downloadable slots technology.

”¡ 69 percent believe that traditional table games offered in electronic, slot-based format have a bright future.

”¡ However, only half the respondents believe Class II electronic gaming (bingo slots) have a bright future, while 36 percent believe they have a bleak future.

”¡ Moreover, neither casino-based wireless (mobile) gaming nor Instant Racing machines received high marks. Only 32 percent and 14 percent, respectively, say the technologies have a bright future.

”¡ Casino executives expressed concern over technology having potential adverse effects on the customer’s experience. Half the survey respondents say they are either "very concerned (18 percent) or "somewhat concerned" (32 percent) about this potential development. In addition, nearly three-fourths say the potential pace of innovation in casino gaming alienating older customers is an issue that "very much" (18 percent) or "somewhat" (55 percent) concerns them.